Former President Donald Trump closes the curtain on CPAC 2023 in D.C. The Conservative Political Action Conference wrapped up Saturday with a speech by former President Donald Trump. Conference-goers cheered Trump even though his popularity within the party is waning.

Despite Republicans cooling on him, CPAC is still the Trump show

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AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Saturday marked the final day of the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. It's the first time since 2020 that the event is back in the D.C. area. And as NPR's Elena Moore reports, though the megaconference is historically a place for Republicans to lay the groundwork for presidential runs, this time, it was all about former President Donald Trump.

ELENA MOORE, BYLINE: After three days of back-to-back speeches, Trump delivered CPAC's closing act, making his plans for the Republican Party clear that this is not the GOP of 10 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: We had a Republican Party that was ruled by freaks, neocons, globalists, open-border zealots and fools. But we are never going back to...

MOORE: And CPAC has embraced the Trump brand of Republican politics, giving speaking time to many far-right political and media personalities. But missing from the lineup this year - a handful of prominent Republicans mulling potential runs for the White House, notably Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who stands as Trump's biggest primary threat if he enters the race. Still, to many CPAC attendees, Trump's their guy. He's why Lisa (ph) Wolf and Melissa Cornwell of Texas are here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: He's talked the talk.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And walked the walk.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: He wants to walk the walk and finish the job he began.

MOORE: Trump's name is written all over the walls of CPAC, or really, on the shirts, hats, buttons and stickers of the people walking around, people like Michael Boatman from Indiana. He's a die-hard Trumper who can acknowledge DeSantis is popular, but says it's just not his time yet.

MICHAEL BOATMAN: He needs to finish his term in Florida and then, in 2028, run. Let Trump get his four years in.

MOORE: And while Trump remains a solid frontrunner, some Republicans see his 2020 loss as a reason to keep their options open.

JORDAN PYERITZ: I like Trump's policies a lot. I think he should keep on trying to promote them. I just don't think he should be president.

MOORE: That's Jordan Pyeritz from Virginia.

PYERITZ: Republicans like to criticize Biden 'cause of his age and that he's senile. Donald Trump is going to be just as old as Joe Biden is right now. Like, why do we have to have an 80-year-old president? No matter whose side you're on, like, I think most people agree that that's ridiculous.

MOORE: And age plays a key role at CPAC. Over the years, it's been a hot spot for mobilizing young Republican voters. Eighteen-year-old Anna Hopper from Arkansas is one of them. Though she hasn't decided who she'll support in the primary, she says Republicans need to start welcoming more young people ahead of the election.

ANNA HOPPER: I think we need someone who's genuine, who can connect with the youth and connect in a way that tells them, we care about you and we don't just care about you because of your vote. We would appreciate your vote because we respect you as the next generation.

MOORE: And those voters are up for grabs, though Republican candidates aren't paying attention this early, according to Joe Mitchell of Run GenZ, an organization that encourages young conservatives to run for office.

JOE MITCHELL: That's not the voting base in the primary, unfortunately. They're going to be going after those red-meat issues for older Republican voters, the people that are consistent and will come out and vote.

MOORE: Because at CPAC, it isn't about the voters they could win. It's about engaging voters they already have. This year, it's clear, though, that CPAC is still firmly Trump country. In the straw poll of potential Republican presidential hopefuls, Trump won 62%. DeSantis came in second with just 20%.

Elena Moore, NPR News, National Harbor, Md.

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